Monday, March 19, 2012

Memories of Syria

In the rare moments when my old man and I see eye-to-eye, we tend to have interesting conversations about Syria and its history. Today we spoke about how Syria got to where it is today, and he told me about how Hafez used to be quite popular when he was in charge of the Air Force. A friend of my grandfather knew him at the time, and said he was a a likeable person. My old man said that when he was a kid, he remembers Hafez was quite relaxed about security, and they used to pass by his office and sometimes see him come in and out of the building, and he would wave at them. It was after the Muslim Brotherhood tried to assassinate him that Hafez became obsessed with security and more sectarian, and unleashed the barbarism of his security services.

As for Rifaat, he used to live on the roof of the building near my grandparent's house, in the Shaalan area. In those days, my old man told me that when they would play on the rooftop they would see Rifaat sometimes and that he always preferred to relax in his home in the fanella (vest). Rifaat would greet them when they met on the street and say to my father, "Ahlein 'Amo (Hello Son). He said that once he saw Rifaat running out of his building waving his kalashnikov like a toy. He also said that Rifaat once dented his brother in law's car - which was new and had just been driven to Damascus from Kuwait. Apparently my grandparents didn't complain about that and preferred to remain silent.

As for my own reflections, I have never seen anybody from Hafez' family, but I remember seeing Rifaat once when I was a child. At the time we were driving home in the Shaalan, and I remember Rifaat was doing a u-turn in the road with his gold coloured Range Rover. He recognised my aunt and waved at us whilst smiling. I remember he had a beard or goatee, just like it is today, and that his hair was very, very dark (with hindsight I think it was dyed). I asked my aunt who that was, and she told me it was Rif'aat. I knew of him because I knew that he owned this derelict building surrounded by a wall near our house, and that my friends and I used to think was haunted. As kids we used to tell each other that the owner had committed suicide, and that on some nights a light could be seen from his old office window. It was opposite the old Indonesian embassy, near the Madfa' park, which is today a trendy cafe. The building itself now belongs to Bank Audi, and the wall is long gone. Behind that building was another derelict building that was said to be for a newspaper that belonged to Rifaat, and that was also closed down. Today that building is populated by some clothes shops.

I also remember that his son came to London, and he struck up a friendship with the neighbourhood thug who was the son of a (now retired) Army officer who had his own guards and kiosks in one of the neighbourhoods. The two guys would race these mini-motorcycles through the empty neighbourhood streets after all the shops had closed. His son then fell out with the other mas'ool's (official's) son, and the last I heard of him was that he left the country again. This was at the time when Hafez' mother had died, and Rifaat had been allowed back into the country temporarily.

Anyway, these are my personal reflections of those times. Damascus is such a small city, and it seems that everybody knows everybody sometimes.